Review of Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict

The following is a book review written for Philosophical Practice 7.2 (2012). Enjoy.

Book Review

Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict, edited by Patrick Henry, new translation of the Rule by Patrick Berry. New York: Riverhead Books (2001). ISBN 1573221902, 223 pages.


Not much is known about St. Benedict’s life apart from his birth into a prominent Norsian family around 480, his rejection of the Roman empire then in decline, his founding a dozen Christian monasteries near modern-day Enfide, and his devising a set of guidelines that have since been preserved by being put into practice in monastic institutions throughout western Europe and abroad. As Mary Margaret Funk, a nun and prioress for 40 years, tells us in the Introduction accompanying Patrick Berry’s marvelous new translation of St. Benedict’s Rule, three principles in particular have provided the intellectual scaffolding for this deeply religious way of life: stability, fidelity, and obedience. What place could these principles, which run in stark contrast to our feelings of uprootedness, waywardness, and disobedience, have in the modern world?

In his short, meditative book A Time to Keep Silence (2007), the young travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts his experience of staying in the Abbey of St. Wandrelle de Fontanelle shortly after the end of World War II. There, in 1953, he observed the monks chanting, reading aloud, and praying commu- nally, he felt the reverence for a silence beyond words and for words beyond silence, the rituals and disciplines tying practitioners to a tradition, and, after a time of inner strife in gnawing seclusion, he achieved, if only transiently, a state of peace in the eternal present. Unlike A Time to Keep Silence, Benedict’s Dharma begins in the monastery but then heads in the opposite direction, seeking to bring the monastic ideas out into the modern world. The book is the result of an interfaith meeting held between Buddhists and Christians in Gethsemani Abbey in July of 1996. After the weeklong encounter, four Buddhist scholars and practitioners—Norman Fischer, Joseph Goldstein, Judith Simmer-Brown, and Yifa—were asked to record their thoughts about the relationship between Benedict’s Rule and the Buddhist way of life. What follows, in the hands of the proposer, editor, and former professor of early Christian religion Patrick Henry, is a loosely arranged set of chapters on freedom and forgiveness (Chapter 2), discipline and spontaneity (Chapter 3), tradition and adaptation (Chapter 4), and leadership and humility (Chapter 5). Included at the end of the volume is Berry’s beautiful, epistolary-esque prose translation of the Rule. Compare the clarity and directness of the opening sentence in Berry’s version—“Listen, child of God, to the guidance of your teacher” (142)—with that of the fusty 1931 edition—“Hearken continually within thine heart, O son, giving attentive ear to the precepts of thy master” (1).

To me, the most evocative image comes in the opening chapter where Henry suggests that “trellis” is a better translation of the Latin ordo than the straitjacketed “rule.” For Benedict “was not promulgating [invariant] rules for living; he was establishing a framework on which a life can grow. While a branch of a plant climbing a trellis cannot go in any direction it wants, you cannot know in advance which way it will go” (1). The rest of the book is meant to explore how sturdy organizations, led by wise guides, can direct the practitioner’s growth toward fullness, flourishing, and completeness. It is also meant, in ways that remain unclear, to suggest how Benedict’s Rule can serve as a trellis for “lay monasticism”: to show how lay persons in the modern world can learn from and live by these gentle guidelines.

The organization of the book into themed chapters is not so much misleading as it is unhelpful. This is because each theme spills over or shades into the next. The nature of leadership, for instance, is discussed throughout the book, not just in the final chapter. The same goes for spiritual exercises, questions of legitimate authority, and the changing face of institutional life. For this reason, I have found it useful to re- categorize the book’s contents according to the nature of spiritual practice, the role of spiritual guidance, and the importance of good institutions. Each of these I examine in turn.

Probably the greatest virtue of the Zen practitioners’ reflections in Benedict’s Dharma is their emphasis on spiritual exercise, rigorous mental training concerned with transforming one’s will, habits, and frame of mind. Those that stood out in my mind were four exercises in not knowing, impermanence, debt cancella- tion, and right speaking. After he is stumped by a riddle that seems insoluble, Goldstein confides that “this ‘not knowing’ became a place of great openness and freedom.” He relates further, “A breath of fresh air blew through my mind, sweeping out many previously held opinions, conclusions, and certainties” (9). What would seem like despair entailed by free-falling epistemic doubt is, it turns out, a sense of freedom in which the practitioner lets go of dead notions and false beliefs. The experience is also, it seems to me, an invitation to conceive of what is only now possible in life, only recognizable as a consequence of the exercise of not knowing.

Similarly, Buddhist exercises in impermanence seek to clear our minds of dead wood and tired rou- tines by calling us to a sense of “spiritual urgency” (19). Buddhists say that birth is followed close upon death; that all that aggregates ultimately disperses; and that all rendezvous end in good-byes. It is the last, most mundane point that I found most resonant. We too often focus exclusively on meetings, on coming together, and on the next encounter, and then only attend to separation when we must face death, grieving, and divorce. How, I thought, can we teach our conversation partners to say their everyday good-byes with grace, tact, and release? Even further, how can we show them how to live not according to expectations, longings, and cravings but in the long present of the long conversation, the eternal present in which there is no more and nothing else?

There is also completeness in debt cancellation and right speaking. Both exercises remind us that another’s words can, in a single instant or over time, undo us unless we manage to let them fall and unless we make our own words as parsimonious, appropriate, sincere, and accurate as possible. (Plutarch also warns against garrulity which he takes to be a harmful vice.) Whereas academic speech tends toward hubris, excess, and coldness and public discourse toward chitchat and group think, these exercises remind us that philosophical conversation should be measured, silent, admonitory, provocative, and loving by turns.

My rider, “by turns,” points to the other supreme virtue of the book: its discussion of the essence of wise leadership. Throughout virtually every monologue, the question of phronesis is raised in connection with what it is necessary for being an excellent moral guide, a virtuous teacher, and a wise leader. In one context, the matter is referred to as “skillful means” defined as the “ability to understand which method is appropriate for which situation” (10) and (it is often appended) for which student, in which manner, at which moment. When, that is, should I say such and such to so and so? How often? In what tone of voice? Using what turn of phrase? From what vantage point? With what aim? And how will he take it? If he is surprised, what does that tell me about him, about me, about us? Apart from having good judgment (but then is good judgment the virtue of virtues?), the wise leader must also be warmhearted (87), complete (89), friendly while also keeping her distance (100), and exemplary in all her deeds, gestures, and manner of living (108). In a word, she should be charismatic, adroitly harmonizing, as Norman Fischer would have
it, the mundane with the contemplative (111).

The last motif, which also calls for phronesis, is perhaps the most vexing and least accessible in abstract terms. A robust institution can persist only if students are able to make progress, external challenges can be met, and leaders new and old can maintain their legitimacy. Simmer-Brown points out that a monastery is unlike a representative democracy or a monarchy in that legitimacy is conferred upon a new superior through some collective assent to the wisdom of whoever—regardless of age, “expertise,” or qualifications—embodies wisdom. However, since neither popularity nor lineage can grant legitimate au- thority, the transfer of power is always uneasy and potentially disastrous. Here, practitioners showed good sense, offering no pat solutions or potted guidelines; individually and collectively, they recognized the need for in situ conversations.

What I found most wanting in the proposed encounter between Zen Buddhist practice and St. Benedict’s Rule was an actual encounter. By “encounter,” I mean a certain kind of improvisation in which the self bends in the direction of the other and the other in the direction of the self. During an encounter, one is introduced to “ways of looking at things, ways of seeing things” differently (Magee 1999: 400), a style of thinking hitherto unknown. From this angle, an encounter bears a certain creative contortion, a subtle convergence of vocabulary, a slight attitudinal shift but not necessarily a doctrinal change, all of which stand in contrast with the comparative religion approach readily followed throughout Benedict’s Dharma. Such an approach operates almost exclusively according to a logic of identity, difference, and analogy. Take identity: Yifa quotes a long passage from the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule and then comments briefly that the “vocabulary differs slightly, but the sentiment is very familiar to me” (74). Difference: Benedict’s third step to humility, Yifa relates, “exceed[s] that which is usually found in Buddhist literature” (77). Analogy: Yifa says that the Dharma in Buddhism can be likened to the God of Christianity (80), though she cautions that the two shouldn’t be conflated. And so? Too often the quotes read as if they were stuck into the text after the reflection on Buddhism had already been finished. One feels as if a meeting were missed, as if separation preceded togetherness.

At one point in the text, you can sense that things could have gone otherwise. Of St. Benedict’s twelve steps on the path of humility, Fischer reveals that he has “explicitly borrowed from the Christians” because humility “is not precisely taught in Buddhism” (115). And how has this “bending” toward Christian humility transformed you and your practice? If you begin to see things in this light, then how does the rest of your practice look? Fischer’s decrescendo: Benedict’s teachings have been “both useful and odd” (115).

The other defect is the quietness surrounding the manner in which we in the modern world might live in the spirit of St. Benedict’s Rule without ourselves becoming cenobites. This silence is all the more surpris- ing given that David Steindl-Rast stresses “lay monasticism” (126-7) as one of the six major conclusions he draws in his “Afterward: Conclusions About a Beginning.” This is not to say that we as philosophical counselors can’t manage to shine a Benedictine light on our own and on our conversation partner’s prac- tices—in fact, if I turn my head the right way, I can just make out how this might be possible—but the task of putting the trellis motif to work not here or there but throughout our lives still remains to be done.

Perhaps this weakness is also a strength because it gives those of us who believe that the spiritual traditions have much to teach us and can be “transvalued” sufficient incentive to get the project of trellis- making under way. And perhaps there is already more than enough in Benedict’s Dharma to take in, to set on our tongue, to sit with, and to look up. In this state of mind, I return, ultimately, to St. Benedict’s brilliant remark that a pupil’s murmuring is serious enough to cause us to rethink nearly everything we do: to cast doubt on whether we have inculcated in him the moral and intellectual virtues, on whether we are embody- ing the wisdom that should merit his obedience, and on whether we are building the kinds of institutions where human excellence can, in Pindar’s florid words, “grow … like a vine tree, fed by the green dew, raised up, among men wise and just, to the liquid sky” (Nemean 8).


Fermor, Patrick Leigh (2007). A Time to Keep Silence, introduced by Karen Armstrong. New York: New York Review of Books Classics.

Magee, Brian (1999). Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy, From Plato to Popper. New York: Modern Library.

Benedict, Saint (1931). The Rule of St. Benedict, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke. London: S.P.C.K.

On murmuring as a clue to the problem of authority

In Chapter 40 of the Rule of Life, the guidebook that has served as a basis for Christian monastic life for the past 1500 years, St. Benedict discusses how much wine is to be apportioned to each member of the monastic community. Perhaps a “half-measure of wine every day should suffice,” he says, but then he concedes that circumstances may vary such that it becomes “impossible to provide the amount of wine we have suggested above.” He concludes, “Those who live in such a locality [where wine has become scarce] should praise God and avoid any murmuring. Above all else I urge there should be no murmuring in the community.”

Above all else? With these words, Benedict implies that murmuring is not a topic of secondary or tertiary importance; it is a matter of ultimate concern.

In Chapter 34, “Fair Provisions for the Needs of All,” Benedict sounds, as ever, Aristotelian in his understanding of the “more or less”: some members will require more food, others less. Give each his due, in effect. Yet, he cautions, “Above all the evil of murmuring must not for any reason at all be shown by any word or gesture. Anyone found indulging in such a fault must be subjected to really severe discipline.” Here, we espy the “above all” yet again, and here we also see that murmuring apparently merits “really severe discipline.”

To our modern ears, Benedict’s stress on the “evil of murmuring,” evidenced in more passages than the two I cited above, is redolent of Jacobinism. At the peak of the French Revolution, Jacobins maintained a communal life of virtue by making common reference to the guillotine glistening resplendently in the morning sun. In the 21st C., the horrors consequent upon policing a life of virtue have led many sober minds to conclude that value pluralism is the public philosophy for us crooked timber. For philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, there is no getting past our knots and twigs, so we might as well grant this and muddle through as best we can.

However, before we infer that Benedict was a Victorian schoolmaster in disguise, let’s take a second look. No doubt attuned to the tininess of Benedict’s stern words, the editors of Patrick Barry’s lucid modern translation of Benedict’s Rule devote an extensive footnote–only part of which have I excerpted below–to Benedict’s harsh attitude toward murmuring. They write that the Latin murmuratio defies translation into modern English but explain,

In monastic life obedience and love are so intimately bound together that each becomes an expression of the other. Nothing is so corrosive of that ideal as the sort of constant complaining Saint Benedict has in mind when he writes about “murmuring” and “murmurers” in a Benedictine community. The damage is done not by the fact that there is a complaint. There are always procedures for legitimate complaints, which are healthy in a monastic community provided they are not destructive and are honestly brought forward in a spirit which is open and ready to accept a decision. Murmuring is not like that; it is underhanded and quickly becomes part of the “underside” of a community. Thus it destroys confidence and is incompatible with the monastic ideals….

I began this post with Benedict’s warnings about murmuring because I believe his ear is very well attuned to the problem of authority. I think he is trying to give a name to a pervasive mood of dissatisfaction that, in the words of The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus, “tear[s] at the fabric of community life” (13). For the editors of Benedict’s Rule and for the anonymous writers at the Community of Jesus, murmuring is said to resemble gossiping and secrets except that it is much more instinctual, lying as it does much deeper in the throat. The reason we should cue into murmuring, that guttural, primitive form of disobedience, is that it is an early indicator that there is something the matter with any group, organization, or institution whatever. Its presence implies one of three things:

  1. The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.
  2. Suppose the murmuring is justified and that it is “directed at” or “addressed to” a figure of authority. This “claim” reveals that the addressee lacks legitimate authority. Hence, the murmuring should lead to admonition, reform of conduct, or an inquiry into the possibility of finding a suitable replacement.
  3. Suppose the murmuring is justified but that it is “directed at” the group. It follows that the organization to which the murmuring member belongs either does not have a legitimate ultimate aim (telos) or does not have the means (techne) to reach that ultimate aim. In either case, murmuring suggests the early stirrings of dissensus.

I examine these three cases in the following posts.


Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.